It is an ironclad law of Republican primaries that every candidate must invoke the legacy of Ronald Reagan whenever humanly possible. Usually that takes the form of explicitly referencing one’s involvement in the Reagan revolution, or how Reagan would have handled a policy matter. But on Tuesday former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman took a different approach by announcing his candidacy on the same ground in Jersey City, New Jersey, where Reagan had famously kicked off his general election campaign in 1980.
To a reporter who trekked across the Hudson River to witness the spectacle, it was a lot less spectacular than one might have expected. Liberty State Park, Jersey City’s pride and joy, actually faces the back of the Statue of Liberty. Getting there from the nearest train station proved difficult, as the shuttle from the train to the park has been cancelled on weekdays due to budget constraints (welcome to Chris Christie’s New Jersey.) After traipsing down the sidewalk-less shoulder of roads filled with trucks and arriving at the event, the scenery grew only slightly more impressive. The day was hazy and overcast, and members of the media outnumbered actual spectators, of which there may have been fewer than 100. A campaign staffer was overheard exhorting the few fans—all of them were white, mostly young and preppy—to crowd into the shot for the media. There was no warm up act and no music, save for a couple bars of America the Beautiful that disappeared as suddenly as they came over the speakers.
Huntsman was introduced with a video, a longer version of the peculiar promo he released last week, which features him riding a motorcycle through the desert with country music in the background. This version features a narrator detailing Huntsman’s achievements and virtues with a series of noun-less, non-sequiter phrases: “knows Asia,” “knows business,” “married forever,” “forever pro-life,” “the ultimate conservative,” “cut government,” “cut taxes,” “not in it for the winning,” “not in it for the balloons” and “a taste for dirt.”
It also rather bluntly stated what is supposed to be some of Huntsman’s subtle appeal, such as declaring that Huntsman, “prefers a greasy spoon to a linen tablecloth.” Huntsman, the son of billionaire, has aggressively promoted that notion, by showing reporters how much he loves tacos from a street truck. That doesn’t have the intended effect when reporters are wise to your game, and it works even less when you just baldly proclaim your regular guy credentials.
Huntsman and his family made an awkward, carefully choreographed entrance from the far side of the park that was presumably intended to give the proceedings an air of Reaganesque grandeur, but instead begged the question of why we were all staring at a handful of blond people walking across an empty grass lawn as if there were something interesting about the sight. Huntsman’s speech was concise, laying out the basic Republican rationale for running— that we are accumulating too much national debt and we need a more effective economic steward in the White House—without the rancor that his primary opponents deploy. He took only one swipe at Obama, when he leaned in to emphasize the line, “leadership that knows we need more than hope.”
Huntsman closed with a section that gave a clear window onto his electoral strategy: to run right for the independent and moderate voters who are turned off by the extremism of other Republicans and the partisanship of the political debate. “I respect the President of the United States,” Huntsman said. “He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better President; not who’s the better American.”
Several of the young attendees—including a 24-year-old former campaign staffer for Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, who declined to give his name because he skipped work for the occasion—said they had voted for Obama and might vote for him again over other Republicans, but they find Huntsman appealing. If Huntsman can win the Republican nomination that could make him a strong candidate in the general election, but he’s got a long way to go before he gets there.